(Clip of Owen Bonnici’s joke is from 12:59 – 13:39)
Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici tried to lighten the mood with some self-deprecating humour as he was grilled by Dutch journalists about Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef.
Bonnici flew up to the Netherlands in an attempt to cool diplomatic relations between the Valletta 2018 Foundation and its counterpart in the Dutch city of Leuuwarden, which is sharing the status of European Capital of Culture with the Maltese capital this year. The Leuuwarden Foundation has imposed a boycott on events in Malta due to a Facebook post by Jason Micallef which made light of the last words of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
During the press conference, a journalist asked Bonnici why – as reported in the Dutch press – he had ignored a SMS by Sietske Popejes, the regional minister for the Dutch province of Friesland, of which Leuuwarden is capital.
The journalist compared Bonnici’s actions to that of a “jilted lover”, prompting the moderator to jokingly ask the Culture Minister why he had rejected Popejes’ love, as Popejes sat by his side awkwardly.
“I am sure she can find more handsome people than me,” Bonnici replied, but the joke only drew a few chuckles from the journalists.
Jason Micallef’s Facebook post landed him in hot water with his Dutch counterparts
During the press conference, Bonnici repeatedly invoked the concept of freedom of expression to defend Micallef’s comments.
“Before this government was elected in 2013, Malta had very austere laws related to freedom of expression and artists were arrested and arraigned with blasphemy,” he said, referring to the much-publicised case of now Book Council chairman Mark Camilleri. “I made a pledge that we would reform censorship laws from A to Z if we got elected and it took us five years to do that, first abolishing blasphemy las and then abolishing censorship laws related to journalistic freedom. Now everyone in Malta can say whatever he likes which is how it should be. Just as people have the right to say that things are going haywire in Malta, so too do other people have the right to say this is not true. People in public positions should tread with more caution but Owen Bonnici [sic] will never censor anyone for expressing themselves.”
His argument didn’t rub with some of the journalists there, who argued that they were not calling for Micallef to be censored but for him to abide by standards of common decency.
Poepjes, as well as the Leuuwarden Foundation’s CEO Tjeerd Van Bekkum, both insisted that Micallef should have resigned, with Van Bekkum going as far as to say that his comments essentially “legitimised and embraced” Caruana Galizia’s murder.